Sunisa Lee can now call herself an Olympic gold medalist after a tumultuous few years.
On Thursday, the American gymnast won the women’s all-around title in Tokyo, ahead of Rebeca Andrade of Brazil in second and Angelina Melnikova of the Russian Olympic Committee in third.
Lee scored 57.433, extending the United States’ five-year run of Olympic gold medals in the event, as teammate and 2016 all-around champion Simone Biles watched from the stands.
Given what Lee has been through over the last two years, it’s no surprise that she used the word “surreal” twice to describe her victory.
She won gold on uneven bars at the US Championships in 2019, just a few months after her father fell off a ladder and became paralyzed from the chest down, and she lost her aunt and uncle to Covid-19 last year.
Lee, who turned 18 in March, has also battled injuries such as a broken bone in her foot and an Achilles tendon injury last year.
“The past two years have been absolutely crazy with Covid and my family and everything else,” Lee told reporters at the Ariake Gymnastics Centre.
“This medal definitely means a lot to me because there was a point in time when I wanted to quit and I just didn’t think I would ever be here, including injuries and stuff.
“So there are a lot of emotions, but I’m definitely super proud of myself for sticking with it and believing in myself.”
Biles’ withdrawal from the event to protect her mental health had dominated the build-up to the final. Biles, a four-time Olympic gold medalist, had earlier this week pulled out of the team competition after landing awkwardly on her vault.
Biles was in the stands with her teammates Grace McCallum, Jordan Chiles, and MyKayla Skinner, cheering and clapping Lee and Team USA’s Jade Carey.
Grace McCallum, Jordan Chiles, Simone Biles, and MyKayla Skinner of the United States cheer for Lee after her gold-medal performance. The defending champion, Simone Biles, withdrew from the competition due to mental health concerns.
Lee’s gold adds to the silver she won with Team USA in the team competition on Tuesday, bringing the US to a tie with the Soviet Union for the most wins in the women’s all-around with six.
Lee began the evening on vault with a score of 14.600 before moving into the medal positions with 15.300 on uneven bars.
Her 13.833 on balance beam put her ahead of Andrade, who then stepped out twice on her floor routine, effectively ending her chances of winning gold.
“I was starting to put a little bit too much pressure on myself,” said Lee. “Knowing that Simone was gone, I feel like people kind of put that pressure on me that I had to come back with a medal.
“I tried not to think about … (and) just focus on myself and do what I normally do because that’s when I compete the best.”
Meanwhile, Andrade can be proud of herself for becoming the first woman from Brazil to win an Olympic gymnastics medal.
Andrade, who was seen competing on balance beam in the all-around final, gave Brazil a historic medal.
She qualified second for the event, behind Biles but ahead of Lee, and placed second in the final on vault and bars. On the third rotation, however, Lee took the lead.
“I did my best and I’m very proud of the outcome,” said Andrade. “I worked hard, I worked with my psychologist to achieve these objectives … I don’t mind if it’s gold, silver, or bronze, or even if I didn’t have any medal. I think I had a great performance and I’m very thankful for that.”
Melnikova’s bronze medal adds to the gold she won earlier this week with the ROC.